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A Comparison of Traditional and Block Periodized Strength Training Programs in Trained Athletes

Bartolomei, Sandro1; Hoffman, Jay R.2; Merni, Franco1; Stout, Jeffrey R.2

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2014 - Volume 28 - Issue 4 - p 990–997
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000366
Original Research

Bartolomei, S, Hoffman, JR, Merni, F, and Stout, JR. A comparison of traditional and block periodized strength training programs in trained athletes. J Strength Cond Res 28(4): 990–997, 2014—The purpose of this study was to compare 2 different periodization models in strength and power athletes. Twenty-four experienced resistance trained men were randomly assigned to either a block periodization training program (BP; age = 24.2 ± 3.1 years, body mass = 78.5 ± 11.0 kg, height = 177.6 ± 4.9 cm) or to a traditional periodization program (TP; age = 26.2 ± 6.0 years, body mass = 80.5 ± 13.3 kg, height = 179.2 ± 4.6). Participants in both training programs performed 4 training sessions per week. Each training program consisted of the same exercises and same volume of training (total resistance lifted per session). The difference between the groups was in the manipulation of training intensity within each training phase. Strength and power testing occurred before training (PRE) and after 15 weeks (POST) of training. Magnitude-based inferences were used to compare strength and power performance between the groups. Participants in BP were more likely (79.8%) to increase the area under the force-power curve than TP. Participants in BP also demonstrated a likely positive (92.76%) decrease in the load corresponding to maximal power at the bench press compared with TP group, and a possible improvement (∼60%) in maximal strength and power in the bench press. No significant changes were noted between groups in lower-body strength or jump power performance after the 15-week training period. Results of this study indicate that BP may enhance upper-body power expression to a greater extent than TP with equal volume; however, no differences were detected for lower-body performance and body composition measures.

1School of Pharmacy, Biotechnology and Motor Science, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy; and

2Sport and Exercise Science, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida

Address correspondence to Sandro Bartolomei, sandro.bartolomei@unibo.it.

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Introduction

Periodized training programs have been used in the training of elite athletes over the past several decades. Training periodization is a planned distribution of workload to avoid stagnation in performance improvement and to optimize peak performance for the most important competitions of the year (29). Sport scientists and strength coaches working with strength/power sports were among the first to adopt a planned distribution of training loads to help athletes reach peak performance at the most important competitions (6). The concept of periodization, its variants, and its subsequent developments are now applied at almost all high-level strength training programs. Although there are many books and scientific articles promoting the importance of training program periodization, there are only a limited number of experimental studies that compare 2 of the more commonly used periodization models: the traditional periodization (TP) and the block periodization (BP).

The traditional model, proposed by the Russian professor Lev Matveev at the end of 1950s, has been used for a number of years by many elite and amateur level athletes (26). In this periodization model, the macrocycle (e.g., the training year) workload fluctuates from a high volume and low-intensity training toward low volume and high-intensity training (19–22). This inverse relationship between training volume and exercise intensity is also observed within each mesocycle (23). This traditional model of periodization has often been referred to as “linear” periodization in the Western literature (1,4,28). Although Matveev's initial description of volume and intensity alterations in his periodization model was not clear (19–21), later publications demonstrated a nonlinear workload distribution using an undulating “wave-like” model (22,23).

Block periodization is based on the original idea of workload distribution that provides a concentrated training stimulus focused on a specific aspect of performance (35,36). This model was proposed by Verchosanskij (33,34,37), who adopted the concept of step periodization that was first introduced by the Vorojeb in 1974 (32,38–40). Verchosanskij attempted to contradict Matveev's vision and to adjust the training paradigm to meet the changing needs of athletes in the 1980s (15). Interestingly, Stone et al. (30) published a theoretical model for strength training in 1981 that was similar to the proposed BP that was being published in Eastern Europe. The block model of periodization is made up of several mesocycles, each with a unique training goal. The progression of training blocks is performed in a logical order, which prepares the athletes for the next training block (13,29). Block periodization is first characterized by an accumulation mesocycle that demands a high volume of work performed at relative low intensity followed by a transformation and realization blocks (25,26). In the North American literature, each mesocycle is generally referred to by their training goals (5,7,12).

The accumulation phase focuses on muscle hypertrophy, where the transformation phase focuses on maximal strength and the realization phase focuses on power and explosive strength. The realization block uses the cumulative and residual muscular adaptations of the previous 2 phases (15). The BP model is often referred to as the “classic linear periodization model” (12,13), or “block with linear increase” (3) because in the first 2 phases (hypertrophy and maximal strength) there is a constant increase in intensity with a decrease in training volume. The benefits of this training system are thought to be attributable to a “conjugated sequencing model” (26,29,33). That is, the adaptations from each cycle are contributing to the gains made in the subsequent training cycles.

To date, there have been only a limited number of studies comparing different periodization models in competitive strength/power athletes (12,13,18). Several of these studies and others have compared linear or BP model to an undulating or nonlinear model (9,24,27,28), but only a few were able to determine the superiority of 1 periodization model over the other. However, the nonlinear model generally employed in these studies used a training design that altered the training volume and intensity by each workout, and by weekly progression as suggested in the TP model. Considering the lack of study comparing traditional to BP models, it is the purpose of this study to compare the effect of the traditional vs. BP on maximal strength and power in highly trained subjects.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

Participants experienced in resistance training (minimum of 3 years of training) were randomly divided into 2 experimental groups and provided a 15-week training program. The first group performed a TP training program that included an undulating model within each mesocycle, whereas the second group performed a BP program that maintained volume and intensity of training throughout each mesocycle.

All participants were assessed for strength (maximal isometric strength in the half-squat position, 1 repetition maximum [1RM] bench press), lower-body power (squat jump [SJ] and countermovement jumps [CMJs]), upper-body power (peak bench press power and force/power curve), and anthropometrics (body mass and body composition) before and after the training program. Subjects were not permitted to perform any additional training or participate in any competition during the duration of the study.

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Subjects

Participants of the experimental groups were experienced strength trained men who were strength trained at least 3 times per week for more than 3 years. All participants were strength and power athletes competing in track and field throwing events or in Rugby and American football in the Italian Leagues. Subjects were randomly assigned to 1 of the following 2 groups: Group 1 (mean ± SD; n = 14; age = 24.2 ± 3.1 years; body mass = 78.5 ± 11.0 kg; height = 177.6 ± 4.9 cm) used the BP program and group 2 (mean ± SD; n = 10; age = 26.2 ± 6.0 years; body mass = 80.5 ± 13.3 kg; height = 179.2 ± 4.6 cm) used the TP program. All participants signed an informal consent document, and the study was approved by the University of Bologna bioethics committee.

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Resistance Training Protocols

The 15-week resistance training program for each group can be seen in Table 1. All participants exercised 4 days per week, and the exercises performed were the same for each group. The groups differed only in the intensity (% of RM) and volume (number of repetitions × sets) used. Subjects were encouraged to increase the resistance used per workout if they performed the maximum number of repetitions required for 2 consecutive exercise sessions. Participants recorded all workouts in a logbook, which was collected by one of the investigators after each workout. Feedback was provided in regard to changes in loading of the exercises.

Table 1

Table 1

The TP program consisted of three 5-week mesocycle with decreasing training volume and increasing intensity. Each mesocycle progressed from hypertrophy to strength to a power focus. Because the participant progressed from 1 mesocycle to the next, the initial starting point was higher (i.e., increased intensity, lower volume) than the previous mesocycle (Figure 1). In the first week of each mesocycle, athletes had to perform 5 sets of 8–10 repetitions at 65–75% of 1RM with <2 minutes of recovery between sets. In the second week, participants performed 5 sets of 5–6 repetitions at 75–85% of 1RM. During the third week of training, participants performed 5 sets of 3–4 repetitions at 85–95% of 1RM with 3 minutes of recovery between sets. During the fourth week of training, power became the focus with the load dropping to 50–60% of 1RM and complete recovery between sets. The last week of each mesocycle was dedicated to recovery and assessments with only 2 light load workouts.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The BP group also consisted of three 5-week mesocycles with the first block characterized by a high training volume and low training intensity, which established the accumulation phase and focused on muscle hypertrophy. In the subsequent mesocycles, the focus transitioned to maximal strength and maximal power (realization phase; Figure 2). During the first training phase, participants used workloads ranging between 65 and 75% of 1RM (6–10 RM). During the strength mesocycle, subjects used 80–95% of 1RM loads with low repetitions (1–6 RM). In the power mesocycle, loads dropped to 50–65% of 1RM with complete recovery and maximal contraction speed.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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Performance Assessments

All participants were assessed for strength, power, and anthropometry at baseline before initiating the training program (PRE) and after the 15 weeks of training (POST). All strength assessments were required to be performed before the power assessments.

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Strength and Power Measures

During each testing session, participants performed a maximal effort isometric half-squat using an isometric dynamometer (Globus Iso Control; Globus, Inc., Treviso, Italy). The isometric half-squat test was conducted using a Smith machine with a fixed barbell and knee flexion angle of 90° between the femur and the tibia. In addition, maximal strength of the upper body was assessed by a 1RM bench press using a Smith machine. Bench press testing was performed in the standard supine position. The participant lowered the bar to mid-chest and then pressed the weight until his arms were fully extended. The 1RM test was performed using an incremental method beginning from a baseline of 30 kg and continued until failure in 10 kg increments. Participants were required to perform a single repetition with each load. During each repetition, the power produced was measured and after attainment of the 1RM a force-power curve was constructed. Area under the curve (AUC) was calculated using a standard trapezoidal technique. An optical encoder (Globus Real Power; Globus, Inc.) was used for power assessment. The peak power and the percentage of 1RM that revealed maximum power were also calculated. Intraclass coefficients were 0.95 (SEM, 4.66 au) for the 1RM bench press and 0.95 (SEM, 7.90 au) for the 1RM squat exercise.

The SJ and the CMJ were used to assess lower-body power. All jump measures were performed on a contact mat (Globus Ergo Jump; Globus, Inc.). For the SJ, each participant began from a squat position with his hands on his hips. Before jumping, each participant was instructed to maximize the height of each jump while minimizing the contact time with the contact mat. On a verbal signal, the participant performed a vertical jump. Jump height was calculated based on flight time recorded by the computer. For the CMJ, the methodology was similar with the exception that the participant began from an erect position and moved to a semisquat position before jumping. Each participant performed 3 jumps for both the SJ and CMJ. Intraclass coefficients were 0.87 (SEM, 2.20 au) for the SJ and 0.89 (SEM, 2.34 au) for the CMJ.

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Anthropometry

Anthropometric assessments included height, body mass, and body fat composition. Body mass was measured to the nearest 0.1 kg. Body fat percentage was estimated from skinfold caliper measures using the method of Jackson and Pollock (16). The same investigators performed all of the skinfold analysis assessments during each assessment period.

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Statistical Analyses

A Kolmogorov-Smirnov test was used to test the normal distribution of the data. Data were statistically analyzed using a group (TP × BP) by time (pre × post) repeated-measures analysis of variance. Significance was set at p ≤ 0.05. In addition, data were analyzed using magnitude-based inferences, calculated from 90% confidence intervals, using a published spreadsheet (14). All data are reported as mean ± SD. Where appropriate, percent change was calculated as follows: (posttest mean − pretest mean)/(pretest mean) × 100. Qualitative inferences based on quantitative changes were assessed as: <1% almost certainly not, 1–5% very unlike, 5–25% unlikely, 25–75% possibly, 75–95% likely, and >99% almost certainly (14).

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Results

Comparison of strength and power changes between BP and TP is depicted in Table 2. There were no significant main effects across time or group, and no significant interactions were noted for power and strength of upper- and lower-body measures. Magnitude-based analysis indicated that changes in 1RM bench press and maximal power output in bench press exercise were “possibly positive” (62.7 and 60.5%, respectively) for BP compared with TP. The percent of 1RM corresponding to maximal power output decreased for BP, whereas increased for TP. These differences between the groups were likely positive (92.8%). In addition, magnitude-based inferences comparing AUC for maximal power performance between 40 and 100% of maximal bench press performance also indicated a “likely positive” (79.8%) effects for improvements in BP compared with TP (Figures 3A, B). The change in AUC value in BP group suggests that an upward shift of the force-power curve occurred and that is likely because of the training program. Magnitude-based inferences for maximal isometric strength in the squat exercise revealed a “likely trivial” (85.9%) difference in the athletes of BP and TP groups from pretest to posttest, a “possible trivial” relation between groups for SJ (57.5%) and an “unclear” difference for CMJ (66.7%).

Table 2

Table 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

No changes in body composition were seen from PRE (9.83 and 11.88%) to POST (9.24 and 10.88%) in either BP or TP. In addition, there were no significant interactions for fat free mass and for fat mass percentage between groups after the 15 weeks of training.

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Discussion

The results of this study indicated that a 15-week resistance training program using a BP model promoted a greater increase in strength and power expression in bench press exercise compared with using the TP model. However, no differences were detected for lower-body performance and body composition measures. Both periodization models incorporated the same total load lifted, thus the differences observed for upper-body strength and power were likely associated with the manipulation of training intensity during the different mesocycles.

Relation between strength and power is a fundamental component in many strength/power sports (15), and an increase in this parameter can lead to an improvement in specific sport performance by the athlete. A wide variety of neuromuscular factors have been reported to contribute to high power production (17,31), including motor unit recruitment, rate coding, and synchronization. Relative temporal proximity between power training and maximal strength or hypertrophy sessions in TP may have decreased the ability of the athletes to optimize power training due to fatigue. This could have potentially influenced the limited increase in power observed in TP.

Several studies have suggested that the optimal load for power expression for the bench press exercise is between 40–70% of 1RM (2,17). In this study, both BP group and TP group showed a value between 50 and 61% of 1RM. During the 15-week training program, a reduction in the percentage of 1RM that corresponded to maximal power in the bench press occurred in the BP group, but not in the TP group. This is consistent with research by Baker (2) who found that stronger subjects produced the maximal power at lower percentage of maximum load than did weaker subjects in bench press throw and SJ. Although this may be influenced by the type of exercise, strength level of the athletes, and training phase, a reduction in the load that produces maximal power could mean a quicker muscle contraction and an early recruitment of high threshold motor unit. This effect may enhance improvements in the rate of force development. This is supported by Baker (2), who suggested that optimal loads can shift toward a lower percentage of 1RM during phases with emphasizing speed-oriented training. This would be consistent with coaches designing yearly training programs that incorporate sprint and plyometric training programs during the power phase of training. The last phase of training during the BP model was completely dedicated to power, and intensity was lowered to accommodate maximum power generation, with workloads ranging between 50 and 65% of 1RM. In the TP group, this was distributed at the end of each of the 3 mesocycles and produced lower results. The single week of lower intensity training at the end of each mesocycle in TP may not be of sufficient duration to stimulate specific neurological adaptation in comparison to a concentrated 5-week training phase seen during BP. This study supports the idea that BP can emphasize specific adaptation leading to the use of lower loads more than a TP program.

Limited improvements in both squat and jump performances were likely related to the lack of plyometric drills in the training routines of both programs and the inclusion of lower-body strength training only 1 day per week. This is consistent with the previous research that has suggested that training improvements in experienced, resistance trained athletes are dependent on training frequency and the inclusion of assistance exercises (10). In addition, strength assessments for the lower body were performed using an isometric measure and dynamic jumps. The lack of lower-body strength improvements reported may also be a reflection of lack of specificity between exercises used during the training program and those used for assessment. Previous studies have indicated that evaluating strength performance in a mode of training not specific to what was trained will not reflect the magnitude of strength improvements (8,25).

No changes were noted in body composition in either training model. Considering that the body composition of these athletes was lean before the onset of the study, the lack of any significant change is not unexpected. This is consistent with previous studies examining 15-week periodized training programs in strength/power athletes (11,12).

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Practical Applications

The results of this study indicate that a BP model may be more beneficial to the TP model during a 15-week training program in eliciting upper-body strength and power improvements in experienced resistance trained athletes. In the context of this study, no clear advantage was demonstrated in either training model in regard to lower-body strength and power improvements. The BP model appears to cause an upward shift to the force velocity curve and resulting in greater power outputs at the lower intensity of the athlete's 1RM bench press. This training model may be superior for the training of athletes participating sports characterized by very quick muscular contractions, like javelin and discus throw of track and field events.

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Keywords:

program design; power development; resistance training; 1 repetition maximum

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